Rene Girard

Tears For Girard

René Girard, the great scholar of scapegoating, passed away on November 4, 2015. He was born in Avignon, France, in 1923, but my thoughts keep drifting to Rome, 1907, sixteen years before Girard was born. Because that was the year that Dr. Maria Montessori made a remarkable discovery that seems, in hindsight, to anticipate Girard’s work by fifty years. What Girard discovered was the scapegoating mechanism; what the good doctor discovered was a scapegoat who quite literally could not speak for itself.

Montessori and Girard each sparked a worldwide “awakening of conscience” (her words) with broad implications for human flourishing. Yet each exhibited a modesty that belied their remarkable insights. Montessori, like Girard, called her discovery “a simple observation and accessible to all”. If you doubt their conclusions, each urged that we need only “go and observe” for ourselves.

Though Montessori preceded Girard, her work could easily be described as a practical application of his. She became keenly aware that children were not only misunderstood by adults; they were victims of adult oppression. No matter that adults defended their parenting and educational methods as demonstrations of love; the Dottoressa could see the suffering such love, blind to the particular needs of childhood, caused. Listen to her describe her aims with ears tuned by Girard:

This is the cause. Not great institutions, not someone endeavoring to spread an idea, only a faint child’s voice, echoing plaintively in every corner of the earth. (The 1913 Rome Lectures, 3)

Like Girard, her work caused adults to undergo profound personal transformations. With a growing sense of guilt, parents and teachers learned that they had been insensitive to the most fragile, dependent and trusting of God’s creatures. She begged that we look with new eyes at common childhood behavior: Why do children move slowly, delight in repetition, prize process over product, privilege meandering over efficiency, and delight in the mundane? This is not evidence of disobedience, disrespect or petulance as adults so often assume. This is evidence of children behaving normally. When we blame or punish them for failing to behave like miniature adults, we have become their oppressors without knowing it.

NSRW_Maria_Montessori (1)

Maria Montessori

What Montessori saw so clearly is that children were highly susceptible to being scapegoated because they are weak and defenseless, without adequate language to express themselves. Fits of anger, tantrums, crying and outright disobedience were explained by Montessori as a nonverbal communication of pain and suffering. What happens when you begin to see childhood tantrums as a victim’s cry for help? Montessori describes the impact during her first teacher training class in 1909:

In this course, for the first time, I expounded the facts related to what is called my method. It happened that during these lectures that many of those present wept so that it seemed a sad course. So I said, “What is so melancholic in what I am telling you?” They answered, “We feel the birth of our conscience within us.” Many wept for the faults of which they were until then unaware.

What Montessori awakened in these first student-teachers was the realization that they had been scapegoating children without knowing it. What caused them to weep was that until their encounter with the Dottoressa, they honestly believed that they loved children. Their aim had been to do what was best, and yet they had done terrible harm. Many who study Girard’s work, myself included, find ourselves implicated in his description of the scapegoater. To have a scapegoat, he warned us, is to not to know you have one. What he awakened in so many people around the world is the terrible realization that we were not so good, peaceful or harmless as we believed. We have wept like those students of Montessori, as our souls were stretched and our conscience born.

As we mourn Girard’s passing, we find ourselves grateful as never before for those tears. He enabled us to see ourselves as obstacles to peace, an awareness both devastating and oddly hopeful. For it puts the key to peace within reach and in our power. Our scapegoats await our tears, often with tears of their own. Let us not make them wait too long.

Images: Screenshot from Youtube. Insights With Rene Girard by HooverInstitution.

Maria Montessori by The New Student’s Reference Work via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Parenting On The Brink: Wrestling With Fears Too Big to Name

Editor’s Note: This article, by guest author and peace activist Frida Berrigan, was first published on

Madeline is in the swing, her face the picture of delight. “Mo, mo,” she cries and kicks her legs to show me that she wants me to push her higher and faster. I push, and push, and push with both hands. There is no thought in my head except for her joy. I’m completely present in this moment. It’s perfection. Madeline embodies the eternal now and she carries me with her, pulling me out of my worries and fears and plans.

But not forever: after a few minutes, my mind and eyes wander. I take in the whole busy playground, crowded with toddlers plunging headlong into adventure and their attendant adults shouting exhortations to be careful, offering snacks, or lost in the tiny offices they carry in their hands. It’s a gorgeous day. Sunny and blue and not too hot, a hint of fall in the breeze. And then my eye is caught by a much younger mom across the playground trying to convince her toddler that it’s time to go.

When Madeline graduates from high school, I will be 57. Jeez, I think, that mom will still be younger than I am now when her kid walks across that stage. If I live to be 85, Madeline will be 46 and maybe by then I’ll have some grandkids.  In fact, I’m suddenly convinced of it.  Between Madeline and her three-year-old brother Seamus and their eight-year-old sister Rosena, I will definitely live to see grandkids.  I reassure myself for the millionth time that having kids in my late thirties was totally fine.

And then another thought comes to mind, the sort of thought that haunts the parents of this moment: When I’m 85, it will be 2059, and what will that look like? When my grandkids are my age now, it could be almost a new century. And what will our planet look like then? And I feel that little chill that must be increasingly commonplace among other parents of 2015.

And then I’m gone. You wouldn’t know it to look at me.  After all, I’m still pushing the swing, still cooing and chatting with my buoyant 18-month-old daughter, but my mind is racing, my heart is pounding. This playground will not be here. This tranquil, stable, forever place wasn’t built to last 100 years, not on a planet like this one at this moment anyway.

I look around and I know. None of this — the municipal complex, the school across the street, the supermarket up the road — is built for 100 years, especially not this hundred years. It won’t last. And I can’t imagine a better future version of this either. What comes to mind instead are apocalyptic images, cheesy ones cribbed from The Walking Dead, that zombie series on AMC; The Day After, a 1980s made-for-TV dramatization of a nuclear attack on the United States; Cormac McCarthy’s haunting novel The Road; Brad Pitt’s grim but ultimately hopeful World War Z; and The Water Knife, a novel set in the western United States in an almost waterless near future.

They all rush into my head and bump up against the grainy black-and-white documentary footage of Hiroshima in 1945 that I saw way too young and will never forget. This place, this playground, empty, rusted, submerged in water, burned beyond recognition, covered in vines, overrun by trees. Empty. Gone.

Then, of course, Madeline brings me back to our glorious present. She wants to get out of the swing and hit the slides. She’s fearless, emphatic, and purposeful. She deserves a future.  Her small body goes up those steps and down the slide over and over and over again. And the rush of that slide is new every time. She shouts and laughs at the bottom and races to do it again. Now. Again. Now. This is reality. But my fears are real, too. The future is terrifying. To have a child is to plant a flag in the future and that is no small responsibility.

We Have Nothing to Fear but…

We mothers hear a lot these days about how to protect our children. We hear dos and don’ts from mommy magazines, from our own mothers, our pediatricians, each other, from lactation experts and the baby formula industry, from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, from Doctor Bob Sears, from sociologists and psychiatrists and child development specialists. We are afraid for our kids who need to be protected from a world of dangers, including strangers, bumblebees, and electrical outlets.

Such threats are discussed, dissected, and deconstructed constantly in the media and ever-newer ones are raised, fears you never even thought about until the nightly news or some other media outlet brought them up. But hanging over all these humdrum, everyday worries is a far bigger fear that we never talk about and that you won’t read about in that mommy magazine or see in any advice column.  And yet, it’s right there, staring us in the face every single day, constant, existential, too big to name.

We can’t say it, but we are increasingly afraid of the future, of tomorrow, afraid for our children in ways that, in themselves, are frightening to bring up. It’s as diffuse as “anything can happen” and as specific as we are running out of ______ [fill in the blank: clean water, fossil fuels, space for people, arable land, cheap food stuffs, you name it]. Even if the supply of whatever you chose to think about isn’t yet dwindling in our world, you know that it will one of these days. Whatever it is, that necessity of everyday life will be gone (or too expensive for ordinary people) by ______ [2020, 2057, 2106].

It’s paralyzing to look at Madeline and think such thoughts, to imagine an ever-hotter planet, ever-less comfortable as a home not just for that vague construct “humanity,” but for my three very specific children, not to speak of those grandchildren of my dreams and fantasies.

It’s something that’s so natural to push away. Who wouldn’t prefer not to think about it?  And at least here, in our world, on some level we can still do that.

For those of us who are white and western and relatively financially stable, it’s still possible to believe we’re insulated from disaster — or almost possible anyway. We can hold on to the comfort that our children are unlikely to be gunned down or beaten to death by police, for example. We can watch the news and feel sadness for the mass exodus out of Syria and all those who are dying along the way, but those feelings are tinged with relief in knowing that we will not be refugees ourselves.

But for how long? What if?

They say: enjoy your kids while they’re young; pretty soon they’ll be teenagers. Haha, right? Actually, I’m excited about each stage of my kids’ lives, but Madeline won’t be a teenager until 2027. According to climate scientists and environmentalists, that may already be “past the point of no return.” If warming continues without a major shift, there will be no refreezing those melting ice shelves, no holding back the rising seas, no scrubbing smog-clogged air, no button we can press to bring water back to parched landscapes.

These are things I know. This is a future I, unfortunately, can imagine. These are the reasons I try to do all the right things: walk, eat mostly vegetarian, grow some of our own food, conserve, reuse, reduce, recycle. We had solar panels installed on our roof. We only have one car. We’re trying, but I know just as well that such lifestyle choices can’t turn this around.

It will take everyone doing such things — and far more than that. It will require governments to come to their senses and oil companies to restrain the urge to get every last drop of fossil fuel out of the ground.  It will take what Naomi Klein calls a “Marshall Plan for the Earth.” In her groundbreaking and hopeful book, This Changes Everything, she writes:

I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale [than the New Deal]. As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.

Which brings me to fear and how it paralyzes. I don’t want to be paralyzed in the face of catastrophic climate change or any other looming calamity. I want to be motivated and spurred to action not by an apocalyptic vision of our local playground engulfed in flames or submerged under several feet of water, but by the potential for the brighter future than is surely within our grasp — within my grasp today and Madeline’s in some future that she truly deserves.

Preparing for the Unthinkable 

Growing up, I heard this a lot: “Don’t be so First World, Frida.”

That’s what Phil Berrigan — former priest, brazenly nonviolent activist, tireless organizer for peace and justice — would tell me, his eldest daughter. If I was flippant or tweenish, that’s what he would always say, “Don’t be so First World.” It was his rejoinder when I asked for spending money or permission to go to the movies. What he meant was: regulate your wants, consider others, be comfortable being alone, put yourself second, listen, be in solidarity, choose the harder path.

My father’s admonishment sounds a discordant note amid today’s morass of parenting messages with their emphasis on success and ease and happiness. But it prepared me for much of what I encountered along the road to adulthood and it resonates deeply as I parent three children whose futures I cannot imagine. Not really. Will they have clean water, a home, a democracy, a playground for their children? Will they be able to buy food — or even grow it? Will they be able to afford transportation? I don’t know.

What I can do is prepare them to distinguish needs from wants, to share generously and build community, to stand up for what they believe and not stand by while others are abused. When, as with Madeline at that playground, the unspoken overwhelms me, I wonder whether I shouldn’t sooner or later start teaching them how the world works and basic skills that will serve them well in an uncertain future: what electricity is and how to start a fire, how to navigate by the stars, how to feed themselves by hunting and gathering, how to build a shelter or find and purify water, or construct a bicycle out of parts they come across on the road to perdition.

The only problem is that, like most of my peers and friends, I actually don’t know how to do any of that (except maybe for the bicycle building), so I better get started. I should also be planting nut trees in our backyard and working for global nuclear disarmament. I can help New London (a water’s edge community) be prepared and more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and be active in our local Green Party.

I know that there’s no simple solution, no easy or individual fix to what’s coming down the road. I know as well that there is no future except the one we are making right now, this second, again and again and again. And in our world, I call that hope, not despair. Perhaps you could just as easily call it folly.  Call it what you will.  I don’t have a label for my parenting style. I’m not a helicopter mom or a tiger mom. But like a lot of other people right now, whether they know it or not, realize it or not, I am parenting on the brink of catastrophe. I’m terrified for my children, but I am not paralyzed and I know I am not alone, which makes me, despite everything, hopeful, not for myself, but for Madeline.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Copyright 2015 Frida Berrigan

Image:  Via Pixabay


The Age Of Peace Will Be The Age Of The Child

If the era in the history of human evolution that is characterized by the constant outbreak of war can be called the ‘adult period’, then the period in which we will begin to build peace will be the ‘age of the child’. – Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace, 1937

The Great War that engulfed Europe from 1914-1918 was a bitter disappointment for the peace movement. As the 19th century came to a close, the promise of progress that accompanied Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of life on earth seemed to put peace within our grasp. Progress was the popular byword and always meant a movement toward something better. It was the age of invention and industrialization. Human beings were overflowing with strategies to improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the working class and the least and the last among us. The women’s rights movement was flourishing as well, and Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree (1896) was an outspoken and popular representative of the cause.

But 1914 dashed all that hope. Many are the disappointments in the world today, as well, if your goal is peace. We are witnessing the greatest number of people displaced by violence and war since the second Great War in Europe. Even so, much progress has also been made by movements advocating for the rights of groups excluded from privilege and power. Women, labor, the disabled, LGBTQ, the poor and the sick have all witnessed their rights expand. And yet war continues. We are living in the best of times and the worst of times, it seems, a paradox that causes many of us to careen between hope and despair, unsure of how to move beyond the motion sickness.

But the answer is right in front of us, as close as the tiny hand reaching up to hold ours. Dr. Montessori discovered that “If we were to change the center of civilization from the adult to the child, a more noble form of civilization would arise.” Her perspective seems naïve, does it not? And yet she explains that if we did reimagine our “national interest” as child-centered or aligned our policies with what was best for children,

Then civilization would not develop exclusively from the point of view of what is convenient and useful for adult life. Today progress is sought for, too much and too exclusively, through adult qualities. Thus civilization is based on the triumph of force, on violent conquest, on adaptation, on the struggle for existence and the survival of conquerors… in the construction of society something – some essential element – has been missing… The child has almost disappeared from the thoughts of the adult world, and the adults live too much as though there were no children who have the right to influence them. (Montessori, The Child in the Church. First published in 1936.)

It’s strange to our way of thinking, that children should influence us and not the other way around. But it’s what Jesus advocated. He taught us that the kingdom of God belongs to the little ones and that if we want to enter, we need to become like them. Becoming like them begins with privileging the rights of children over our own, whether we are women or men or laborers or sick or poor, powerful or powerless.

Before we make any domestic policy decision on health care, defense budgets, economics, education, criminal justice, policing, gun policy – whatever the issue we must ask how it will effect the children, and let the answer become the policy. And in international relations if we considered the impact on children before we negotiate agreements on weapons, trade or immigration, before we launch an invasion, orchestrate a coup, drop a bomb or authorize murder by drone, how different our actions would be. We would be less violent and more peaceful actors in the world. Not only would the world be safer for children, it would be safer for us all. The age of peace will be the age of the child.

My two-year-old granddaughter likes to ask her mom, “Where are we going next?” Perhaps that’s a bigger question than she knows, one that deserves our best answer.


Image: Copyright Paylessimages via


And If I Die Before I Wake: On Death And Praying With Children

When I was a boy, every night my Dad would tuck me into bed and lead me in prayer. We would close our eyes and fold our hand as my Dad would pray for individual members of my family, my friends and teachers, and for world peace.

At age 36, I can tell you that this bed time prayer ritual is one of the most important gifts that anyone has ever given to me. While my Dad no longer tucks me into bed and leads me in prayer (I am 36, after all!), the ritual has stuck with me. In fact, my night time prayer routine helped me get through middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. It was there when my Mom died of cancer when I was 20. I took it with me when my wife and I joined the Peace Corps. I brought it back with me 10 days later when we became Peace Corps drop outs. It was there for me on those two nights that my sons were born. And it was there on the night that we adopted our daughter.

That prayer has always given me a sense of peace and calm during good times and bad. The repetition of my Dad’s night time ritual provided me with a deep sense that I was loved. Not just by my Dad, but also by God.

As a father of three children, my Dad is my model for how to be a good father. So, I’ve decided to pass the night time prayer ritual along to the next generation. I pray with my children in the same way that my Dad prayed with me. We start with the same opening:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I’ve since discovered that the prayer continues, “If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways.” My Dad never prayed that happier ending. Maybe he didn’t know it. Or maybe he wanted to torment his son with the thought of death!

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reason. But I also know that it prepared me for the death of my mother.

Our culture doesn’t prepare us for death very well. We like to keep it at arms-length. But the truth is that death is unavoidable – grandparents, parents, children, and even pets. As much as we’d like to avoid it, we know about death from an early age. Paradoxically, the more we try to suppress the truth about death, the more power we give it over our lives. The gift that my Dad gave me in the opening of our prayer was the knowledge that death is natural. We don’t have to fear it. Instead, we can know that in life and in death, God is there with us.

The other night I was praying with my eight year old son. He’s a very curious boy. So, when I finished, he sat up, opened his eyes, and said, “Dad, there was something really weird about that prayer. I mean, what’s the deal with that part that says, ‘If I should die before I wake?’”

I remember asking the same question to my Dad when I was about eight years old. I can’t remember how he responded. But the years of praying those words prepared me for this answer: “You’re not going to die tonight. But at some point, everyone dies. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid of it. Because I love you. And so does God.”

“Okay Dad,” my son replied. Then he laid back down and fell asleep.

Image: Photo: Flickr: Nancy Big Crow, Praying Child, Creative Commons License, some changes made

sakina breaks a toy gun

Burying Guns; Planting Peace In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Dr. Hakim, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

10 year old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, “I don’t like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace.”

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group’s energetic desire to build a world without war. “I kept toy guns till about three years ago,” he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: “I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were its (the peace treaty’s) true authors, its reason for being.”

I’m confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky’.

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn’t going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul’s streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn’t have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam knew that it hasn’t been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn’t water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren’t helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. “Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn’t shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist.”

Sighing, he added ironically, “We can’t use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

“I don’t like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad,” Inam said, looking away, “because I feel a sort of helplessness.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference, “And we must speak, today – in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.”

Sakina tells the world

Sakina tells the world.

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, “#Enough of war!”

It wasn’t a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, “Bury your weapons. Build your gardens.”

“We will stand watch for you!”


Hakim, ( Dr. Teck Young, Wee ) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

Top Image:  “Sakina breaks a toy gun.” All images submitted with original article.


The Imitation Game: US-Iran Relations

We now have an agreement with Iran to restrain their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but just how good a deal is it? President Obama, congress, presidential contenders, and political commentators are debating that right now. Sojourners offers clear-eyed support for the deal as “better than the alternatives” and clearly better than military strikes which “would be, at best, premature, as well as highly unpredictable and morally irresponsible in creating yet another U.S. war with a Muslim country.”

Even so, Sojourner’s President Jim Wallis has written that he has no doubt that Iran is “an enemy of America, an enemy of Israel, and an enemy of peace.” But as a Christian, he also believes that “you need to find ways to make peace with your enemies.” This deal, for Jim Wallis anyway, seems to be a way to do that. But how do you make peace with a nation that is not just our enemy, but an enemy of peace itself?

Just what is an enemy? We don’t often ask that question because we think the answer is obvious: enemies are bad guys who hate us for no good reason. An enemy is so unlike us that we compare ourselves to them in terms of opposites: rational/ irrational, nonviolent/ violent, law abiding/ criminal, and just/ unjust. We believe that we and our enemy have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps a shared desire to defeat the other.

The Terrible Twos: A Parable

But I think that way of thinking about enemies is just plain wrong. The cause of the mistake is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology, specifically the psychology of desire. Our enemies are not our opposites; they are the mirror image of our desires. In this way, “an enemy” is not someone separate and distinct from us, rather they are a product of our relationship with them. The best way I know of illustrating this is with a story about desire in my 2-year-old granddaughter, Grace.

Grace is at that “terrible” age when her desires often seem at odds with the adults around her. But mostly she’s not as terrible as just annoying. Like when she won’t eat her own food but devours what’s on her mom’s plate or when she wants to “help” fold the clothes. Like all terrible twos, Grace is an imitator on steroids. Whatever we do, that’s what she wants to do, too. Which is how she learns to do things, of course. Grace is learning how to be a grown-up by imitating grown-ups. Which is natural and good, not terrible at all.

The terrible kicks in when Grace seems to be determined to do the opposite of what we want. For example, when we try to do something we think she needs help with, like pour her milk, she screams, which is her wordless version of, “You’re not the boss of me!” If we insist on pouring the milk for her, it leads to the dreaded power struggle. Hey, what parent hasn’t gotten into a tug of war over pouring milk or bedtime or what to wear to school, and lost?! Our kids seem determined to defy us just for the sport of it and it’s hard not to feel that our sweet two-year-old has turned into a demon child.

But here’s the catch: Grace’s defiance is also an act of imitation except that she’s imitating something we want to keep sole possession of: the power to decide things for ourselves. Get it? When mom displays her own ability to make decisions and impose her will on Grace, Grace will have none of it. She wants to be just like mommy in everything, including being the boss of herself! In fact, the more we refuse to share the privilege of being her boss, the more desirable it becomes to her. We would never call Grace our enemy, but boy oh boy, it sure does feel like it sometimes!

The Psychology of Desire

This is just basic desire psychology. The thing we won’t share is the thing we most value and that will provoke desire in others. So what does this have to do with Iran, the so-called enemy of the U.S.? Iran may be our enemy, but her desire for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a perfect imitation of our own. I am not discounting the dangers to U.S. security if nuclear weapons get into the wrong hands. No hands could be more wrong than those of an enemy, especially one that is also an “enemy of peace”. But the U.S. may risk becoming an enemy of peace as well when it blames others for desires they learned from us.

Let me be clear: Iran is no more a child than we are. We are equals, mirror images of each other’s desires for nuclear weapons and global respect. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear policy, but I do know that conflict begins with shared desires. Ironically, so does friendship. The difference between enemies and friends is that friends enjoying sharing desires and enemies deny it’s happening. Remember, if Iran refuses to relinquish their desire for nuclear weapons, it’s not defiance; it’s imitation. And yet it may be easier than we think to follow Jim Wallis’ advice to find a way to make peace with this particular enemy. The path is obvious and available to us: we can renounce our desire for a nuclear arsenal. That’s a desire worth sharing and enjoying with friends.


Image: Copyright: David Carillet via


We Do Not Hit!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Children are like sponges, always soaking up the world around them. Every little detail is noticed, especially when you least expect it. I have noticed this, for better or worse, with my daughter. From little mannerisms, to phrases of speech, my daughter imitates “mommy” and “daddy” more than anyone else in her life. This forces me to be on top of my game at all times—always vigilant so as to not model some horrific behavior that will only bring trouble for her. The interaction I witnessed between a mother and child today tells me not everyone is this aware of the impact their behavior will have on their children’s.

The topic of my last entry was on positive mimesis—this one will cover the negative side of imitation.

This particular encounter played out as follows:

A 3-year-old girl begins to “act out” and in doing so, hits her mother across the face. Her mother grabs the little girl’s wrist and smacks her on the hand—while at the same time saying “we do not hit!”

(While the negative effects of spanking [euphemism for hitting] are not the primary topic of this article, I would like to mention how opposed I am to the practice. Please look up as much data as you can prior to deciding “to spank or not to spank.”)

In the scenario above, the mother is not in fact teaching her child not to hit. Instead, she is teaching her child two things—both unintentional consequences of her actions. First, she is modeling for the child “how” to hit others. In this instance, she showed how to grab someone’s wrist, control it, and smack the back of the hand. Second, she is displaying her brute, physical force; now modeling “when” to hit someone. When her child gets bigger and is strong enough to control someone who is smaller and probably younger, she will more than likely use her own physical force to control and hit that smaller and younger person. More than likely, this will be a younger sibling and/or peer at school. The little girl may have heard, “We do not hit”; but she will more than likely copy her mother and do so anyway.

Rene Girard, in The One Whom Scandal Comes, writes:

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.”

In this particular case, the mother probably viewed her 3 year-old’s violence as “bad” because it was the “original” act of aggression. The mother’s violence—her “eye for an eye”—was good because it would “teach her daughter a lesson”. The reality, however, is that the 3 year-old girl learned the act of hitting from somewhere…and, more often than not, it is from one or both parents. So, who is responsible for the first stone, the child or the parent? Who will be responsible when the child copies her mother while at school, the child or the parent? Who is responsible when two siblings hit each other, the children or the parents who “spank” them for it?

There may not always be a direct correlation, but if I may use one piece of anecdotal evidence—my daughter, who is not spanked, never uses violence when dealing with adults, peers, or those younger than her. As much as I notice her imitation of me, I cannot help but think if I hit her in order to “teach her a lesson”; she would also imitate that at some point. I have no evidence to believe otherwise.

Where I used to see the most extreme examples this type of negative mimesis is when I worked in youth group homes. Part of my job was to monitor visits between parents and residents of the home. Inevitably, I would learn back-stories, histories, and, all too often, tragedies. There were stories of abuse and neglect—violence and madness—all manners of evil. Not to minimize spanking, but we are talking much more than spanking here! The kids I worked with for 8 years were the most abused of victims. And yet, they often became victimizers themselves. It was on one hand tragic, but on the other, all too predictable. In their situation, who is responsible? Given the dire circumstances many were in, and given that we are not autonomous beings but interdividuals (Girard’s term), I cannot conclude the youth were 100% responsible for all their actions all the time. As Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NRSV). I am certain the abused children I worked with for so many years felt like that many times in their lives.

My point in this entry is not to point out people’s behavior so I can then judge them—far from it. I am, however, dead set on pointing out behaviors that model “how to commit violence against others”. In doing so, my hope is that more and more people will acknowledge that all of us have this potential violence in us; all of us imitate each other and enter into mimetic conflicts. And all of us imitate self-destructive behavior from time to time. If we can acknowledge this, I believe we can then focus our energy onto positive imitation. When energy is focused on positive imitation of others, namely forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and love, real change can occur.

So, my goal is for those who engage in any form of violence—intentional or unintentional—to recognize the slavery it causes and progress toward a more peaceful “self”. In modeling peace, we free ourselves to experience true relationship with others. We discover our true humanness when we serve others wholeheartedly. Let’s start modeling that type of behavior. The sky is the limit as to how far humanity can go if we all begin to model peace.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

Mother’s Day Book Feature Friday: It Runs In The Family by Frida Berrigan

Berrigan book 2I am a stay-at-home mom, and I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker. It often feels like a strange, paradoxical life. At any given moment, when my mind is filled with the major challenges of the 21st-century world – a constant “war on terror,” environmental degradation, racism, sexism, and homophobia in all of their violent manifestations – my hands are filled with a squirming toddler demanding, and deserving, my undivided attention. Or I’ll find myself writing an article on forgiveness and empathy, only to see the latest “experiment” of my six-year-old leave a mess of flower petals and water strewn across the bathroom sink, feel tempted to lash out, and struggle to live up to my own rhetoric. How do I strive to make some small difference in a desperate and vulnerable world, and remember that the most important difference I can make is in the lives of two small, vulnerable human beings? How do I strike the best balance for the world, my children and myself?

My answers will differ from those of Frida Berrigan, but her witness as an activist, a peacemaker, and a mother of three children, makes her a powerful role model for me. Her autobiography It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood is filled with deep wisdom of dedicated, faithful activists and humbling, humorous lessons learned through trial and error to which any parent can relate. With the blood of renowned peacemakers Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister running through her veins, Frida’s own life is a credit to the inspiring activism of her parents. She and her sister and brother are living proof that one of the most important tasks of a peacemaker is helping to inspire the next generation, those who must continue the work of healing this bruised and battered world.

But the task of raising conscientious, dedicated persons – aware of but undeterred by the many troubles of the day – is difficult and complicated. The urgency of the world’s needs often clash with the need to stop everything and nurse or change a diaper. The mimetic pressure to throw our children the perfect birthday party to fit in with other kids (and for us to fit in with their parents) clashes with a desire to teach them not to be materialistic and to live with an awareness of others in true need. And knowledge of the importance of modeling peaceful behavior does not stop the occasional outburst when they push all our buttons in the ways that only our own offspring can. Seeing Frida Berrigan – whose last name is synonymous with the peace movement – struggle with all of these matters is deeply comforting. Within the pages of her autobiography, I have found someone that I can relate to in addition to a model I would like to try to emulate.

Relatable though she is, however, I confess that, had I not learned about her life through the lens of motherhood, I might have been a little intimidated by Frida Berrigan. I look at her activism – cofounding Witness Against Torture, traveling to Guantanamo, at the forefront of peace and social justice issues long before I found my voice on such matters – and I feel a sense of awe. I cannot help being impressed by someone who was out on picket lines since she was in cloth diapers, raised in a counter-cultural commune by a small village that helped to care for her and her siblings when her parents served jail sentences for witness against war. I admit it is a little hard to read this book and not feel like my own witness is far behind. At the same time, Frida’s wise and compassionate words help me to realize that what I am doing right now – beyond writing, beyond any volunteering or marching or petitioning I may find time to do – this crazy, messy, sometimes unpredictable job called motherhood – is one of the most important and meaningful ways I will ever make a difference for peace, not only for the way I am shaping my children, but for the way I am letting them shape me. So as I read, I strive to keep my model from becoming my obstacle by recognizing all the challenges and opportunities for nonviolent witness that motherhood provides.

Frida herself, of course, provides a wonderful model of resistance to the scandal of model-obstacle relationships! After all, her parents gave her “big shoes to fill.” “I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace,” she writes. “So what can I offer my own children?” Exchanging communal life for a single-family home but still participating in co-ops and community gardens, avoiding arrest for civil disobedience but being a legal war tax resister, Frida Berrigan has learned from her own upbringing without replicating it. Grateful to her parents and the many role models who inspired her, she and her family are making their way in the world as peacemakers in their own right, inspired but not burdened by the examples of a generation gone before.

I am not ready to become a war tax resister. I am not even ready to trade in the convenience of disposable diapers for the environmentalism of cloth. But with the help of this book I am inspired to explore nonviolent living and parenting in more holistic, integrated ways than ever before. I am ready to cut back on waste and materialism and consumption, and teach my children to do the same. I am inspired to be more present with my children and fully listen, reducing the distractions of technology. I want to help them become more involved with our communities and more aware of the world around them. I want to teach them how to respond to the troubles of our time with determination and compassion. Frida Berrigan may not have all the answers, but seeing her ask the same questions is encouraging.

But above all, I am encouraged and humbled by the reminder that activism and peacemaking are not “put on hold” for raising children. Rather, it is in raising children that peacemaking and activism take on their most complex, integrated, and authentic forms. In our relationships with the most vulnerable members of our community, we have the opportunity and awesome responsibility to model compassion and humility. My knowledge of mimetic theory makes me even more aware of how much children are influenced by the examples of their surrounding adults. Showing them that they are loved by modeling conscientiousness and compassion to them is perhaps the most important way I can influence peace. It will certainly leave its impact after I am gone in a way that nothing else can. Motherhood is but one manifestation of this responsibility that we all have to children; in whatever capacity we relate to them, we have a duty to model the kindness and compassion that we wish for the world when it is in their hands. And in modeling such kindness, we can begin to create such a world today.

But as Frida and my own children constantly remind me, the peacemakers in the child-parent relationships are not exclusively or even primarily the parents!

Children are little insurrectionists. They turn our lives upside down and they insist we see it through their eyes—and they care more than anything about fairness and friendship. Maybe we have more to learn than to teach.

I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker, but It Runs In The Family reminds me that in truth, as a mother, I am a peacemaker, at least when I am at my best. I add Frida Berrigan to a growing list of role models who bring out the peacemaker in me, including my own parents, my patient and compassionate husband, and my wonderful, world-upending daughters, who have shown me new dimensions of unconditional love.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about rebellious motherhood by following Frida Berrigan’s column “Little Insurrections” at





The Case for Child Labor

My grandpa was a Pennsylvania coal miner and a union man. He overflowed with gratitude for the unions that won miners shorter workdays, higher wages, and safer conditions. None of which could save him from black lung disease, which took his life before he turned seventy. But thanks to the unions, his widow, my grandmother, collected black lung payments from the government until her death.

My grandmother told of what it was like when company owners treated the workers as expendable and exploitable. When a man died in the mines, she told me, the body was delivered home in a wagon and deposited without comment at the front door. It was up to the family to clean the soot and grime off their dead father and husband, bear the cost of burial, and face the future without their primary wage earner.

Each May 1 we celebrate International Worker’s Day. It gives us occasion to reflect on these gains for worker rights and give thanks for those who fought to achieve them. An important outcome of the labor movement was legal protection for children. This represented a revolution in society’s approach to childhood itself as it became clear that children were not miniature adults who could be exploited for their small size and agility in adult workplaces.

What we have yet to grasp is that children have a work of their own, something that no adult can do for them. The revolutionary educator, Dr. Maria Montessori, recognized this in her work among the poor laborers in Rome. Treating diseases of the body as Italy’s first female medical doctor, Montessori was a pioneer in the women’s labor movement of the 1890s. When trying to explain her discovery about the work of children, she referred to the popular labor movements of her day, saying that:

the laborer… is seen as a producer of wealth and well-being, an essential partner in the great work of civilized living… [the child], too, is a toiler, and the aim of his work is to make a human being.

What she wanted the world to understand is that the child has “a kind of psychic life totally different from that of adults… the child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself.” Montessori was reduced to mystical awe in the presence of the power of the child’s mind to create a human being perfectly suited to his time and place of birth from the raw materials of his environment. Adults move through the world gathering impressions, some of which form memories, others of which pass by unnoticed. Not so with the child.

Instead, the child undergoes a transformation. Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it. They incarnate themselves in him.

Montessori felt that a child free to go about this work of inner formation would be joyful and calm, happy in his work – what we too glibly call “play”. This easy contentment with the work (or play) of one’s hands was, she believed, humanity’s natural state. Anger and conflict, materialism and spiritual impoverishment were unnatural conditions, the result of preventing children from doing the work they were born to do.

Montessori was also a peace activist. She was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering work in peacemaking through education. She believed that one thing remained for the world to achieve the global peace we all claim to want, and that was to dedicate ourselves to the service of children. If she were alive today, I believe she would tell us to stop arguing about the causes of violence, war, racism, poverty or oppression. She’d say that the solution is already known and it is for society to seek first the well-being of the child. All other problems will resolve themselves as we work toward that goal. She sought another workers’ revolution, this time on behalf of the work of the child.

“I think of this as the final revolution; not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.”

From Baltimore to Iraq, children around the world are cowering beneath the shadow of violence. Peace will never be possible until children the world over are free to work in the light.

Doing The Hokey Pokey For Lent

Image from

Image from

I’ll be doing the Hokey Pokey with my children today.

It may seem like a strange way to observe Ash Wednesday, but bear with me. If you’re searching for a way to teach children some basic principles of discipleship, repentance and forgiveness, with some reference to the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection to boot, this childhood favorite is an excellent resource. With a little modification, this song and dance can be a joyful tool for helping children – and adults – understand what it means to follow Jesus.

I give credit for this idea to Josh Kaufman-Horner, who led a workshop at the 2012 Theology and Peace conference entitled “It’s Not About Fun, Justice, Or The Hokey Pokey,” about the importance of using biblical language when talking about mimetic theory as applied to faith. It was a great workshop, but it wasn’t about The Hokey Pokey. However, what Josh meant as a creative gesture to advertise his workshop gave me an idea for a Sunday school lesson particularly apt for the Lenten season.

Lent is all about turning our hearts and minds toward Jesus. It is about repentance, which means turning ourselves around, reorienting ourselves away from patterns of desire that entrap us in cycles of violence and envy and destruction of self and others and toward unconditional love. It’s a slow process, a lifelong process, a hokey pokey process, if you will. And as we follow Jesus on the path to the cross that leads to eternal life, we will find this process increasingly demanding.

I explained it to the children of All Saints Episcopal Church in Sunnyside, NY like this (and there could be a separate lesson for each body part):

Jesus calls us to follow him in his way of love and peace. The Church is known as Christ’s body, which means each of us has a role to play in the work that Jesus wants us to do. We have to use our own bodies to follow Jesus and be his body, to do his work for peace and love on earth.

To follow Jesus, we must use our hands. Hands can build, hands can hold, hands can hug. We might use our hands to follow Jesus by building homes or giving food to the hungry. We could follow Jesus by hugging a friend or a loved one who is sad or hurt, lonely or scared. We could follow Jesus by lending a helping hand to anyone in need.

But sometimes, we will get tired, or sad, or frustrated. Sometimes it might seem like the work we do is never enough. Sometimes we will be the ones who need a helping hand, and we won’t be able to see what we have to give. Sometimes, we might take our hands out of God’s work.

The good news is that Jesus will always extend his hand to us, and we will always have another chance to put our hands right back into the middle of God’s work. And when we do God’s work, we shake up the world!

To follow Jesus, we must use our feet. We might have to follow Jesus into new and strange places, whether across the world or across the street. We might follow Jesus into hospitals or prisons to give comfort to people who are hurting or shut away. Or we might follow Jesus far across the world, to help those who do not have the resources we enjoy. Wherever Jesus calls us, we should follow to spread a message of good news, comfort, and forgiveness.

But our feet will sometimes tire. Sometimes, the road will seem too long, or the waters will seem too rough. We could be overwhelmed by fear or fatigue. We could become distracted and wander far from the path, losing ourselves and losing our focus on God’s way.

The good news is that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will always search to find us and put us back on track. We will always have another chance to jump feet-first into his way of love. And when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we will shake up the world!

To follow Jesus, we must use our heads. Jesus changes the way we think and the way we act. When someone hurts our feelings, or says something we disagree with, our first instinct might be to argue or fight. But Jesus teaches us to forgive and listen to each other. He helps us learn how to be friends even when it’s hard to get along.

Learning how to think like Jesus may be the hardest part of following him. It is natural for us to love our neighbors and hate our enemies, but Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them! Most of the time, we completely fail!

The good news is that the more we forgive, the more we love, the more we try to work on our own mistakes before we try to correct others, the more we recognize that Jesus has been there all along, changing our minds to be like his! And as more and more people begin to think like Jesus, the whole world will tremble with excitement and love overflowing!

During Lent, we remember how God is changing the world. God came into the world as a person, as Jesus, to teach us how to live. His way of love for everyone made some people very angry, because he didn’t see a world of good guys and bad guys. He loved even the people we might not like. And because of this, he was killed on a cross. But Jesus came back and forgave the people who killed him, showing us that there is nothing we can do to lose his love! This love is so powerful that it is changing the whole world one heart at a time. And as our own hearts are changed, we are called to follow Jesus in his way of love.

Following Jesus takes our whole selves. It is hard work, and we will run away from it again and again. But, again and again, Jesus will gently seek us out and guide us back onto his path. We will stumble, fall and fail, but Jesus will patiently help us time and time again. Jesus’s work of turning the world around is a hokey pokey process because it starts with turning us around. But as we follow Jesus, we join him in the awesome work of building the Kingdom of God – a kingdom of Love – right here on earth.

And that’s what it’s all about!


You put your right hand in
You take your right hand out
You put your right hand in
And you shake it all about!
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around (repentance)
That’s what it’s all about!

(Repeat for “left hand,” “right foot,” “left foot,” “head,” and “whole self.” Then add a special verse:)

He put his whole self in (incarnation)
We took his whole self out (crucifixion)
He put his whole self in (resurrection)
And he shook it all about!
He does the hokey pokey and he turns the world around
That’s what it’s all about!